September 24, 2003


I respect many of the more sober voices opposed to the American conduct of the Iraqi occupation. I think they have many valid points, but they are as a group beginning to get just a little hysterical.

Hence we have Fred Kaplan warning of a "looming disaster." Juan Cole says the Americans need an extra division "as soon as possible" and 40,000 more troops by spring. And so on.

It's important that we don't get carried away here. There is no evidence of a "looming disaster" in Iraq. The American casualty count continues to drop. Cole's own site, the best for news on American battle casualties, has reported very few in September by comparison to previous months. The initial postwar craziness phase seems then to be drawing to a close. And there is no evidence whatsoever that the Americans, from a military perspective, aren't capable of holding on and continuing their current level of operations with the troops they have.

The worst case in Iraq was never "disaster." The worst case was always that the Americans would just create another Egypt and leave: a stable American-friendly dictatorship, that would come to produce disaffected jihadists just as reliably as all the other stable dictatorships there do now. That's the worst case: one that seems more and more predetermined given the American conduct of the war and occupation thus far. It'd be a tremendous screwing-over of the Iraqi people... but it's not a looming disaster. (If there's any looming disaster, it's a fiscal one for the Americans back home as the war bills come in, but that's not a problem I'd personally lose a lot of sleep over.)

Cole, meanwhile, is confusing the need for commitments, and the need for troops on the ground right now. The Americans could really use a commitment now for an extra division, because they don't have easy backfill for the 101st Airborne when it starts pulling out of Kurdistan in February. That is the immediate problem. Bush's UN speech was part of that, as there still seems hope that between Turkey, Pakistan and India something can be cobbled together there. And obviously, as the rotations for other troops start to draw down through 2004, if the situation remains unstable, more forces will be needed through the course of that year. Commitments totalling another 40,000 from somewhere, to arrive 6-18 months down the road, would also be helpful. But there's still a lot of flexibility in that, as the rotation schedule and operational picture will certainly between now and then. Cole makes it sound like the Americans want an Indian division on a plane to Baghdad yesterday. They clearly don't... it's doubtful, before the 101st starts to leave, that they'd know where to put them right now.

And if they don't get that division by February? What then? The most likely result is the Americans continue to front-end load their occupation by moving up the deployment times for other units to compensate, as much as they feel they need to. This will inevitably cut into their operational stamina and shorten the amount of time before, for pure resource reasons, the Americans will need to "declare victory and go home" (or at least, ratchet down from an occupation force to one that only bases in Iraq as a backup to indigenous police power and for use elsewhere in the region). That means a potentially earlier-than-ideal handover of power to whoever in Iraq they figure can actually rule in their stead. That means a bigger chance of another Egypt, either because the proto-democratic system they leave behind devolves into dictatorial rule, or because the instability that ensues results in the rise of a strongman. And then we're basically back where we started, we've just lost a decade. That's the risk. It's all too real. But it's not "looming" by any stretch of the definition.

Posted by BruceR at 11:31 AM